NBA Villain or Hero? PR Lessons from the Dwight Howard and LeBron James Reputation Fiascos
Has LeBron James exorcized or recovered from the PR damage he may have done to his reputation via the “Decision” now that he and the Miami Heat have won the NBA finals? Has he outgrown the NBA’s “most-hated villain” label (a distinction that looks to have fallen to a flip-flopping Dwight Howard this week)?
Good questions and the answers depend on whether you are a Miami Heat/LeBron James fan or a Cleveland area/Cavaliers fan. The fact that LeBron James decided to do a whole TV special to announce his decision on what team he was taking his talents to definitely didn’t sit well with most. LeBron himself admitted that the hatred from fans affected his game. But was his reputation really damaged?
Remember: Perception Is Not Always Reality
Right after the Miami “Decision,” polls had indicated that LeBron James’ ratings were low and that he had lost his marketing appeal. That was presumably the general consensus that he had done damage to his PR reputation. But, the reality was that the cash registers kept ringing and money talks and in this case, the numbers don’t lie. He went on to have the best-selling basketball jersey, Miami Heat number 6, and basketball sneakers LeBron 8’s. Not bad for someone so high profile with an apparently “damaged” reputation.
So while the general population saw LeBron in a somewhat negative light, his shoes were number two in the entire sports footwear space only to Nike’s legendary Air Force 1. The LeBron 8 sneakers also had 20 percent higher sales than the next most popular basketball sneakers, the classic Jordan IX, according to CNBC. Keep in mind that LeBron 8’s hit the market in late 2010, at a hefty $160 price tag during a down economy with high unemployment rates … especially in many communities that are widely known to spend a lot of money on basketball shoes. So can he sell? The resounding answer is yes. And the numbers show that news — whether good or bad — is better than “no” news.
Remember: Know Your Market
Nike truly understands its market, for each player it sponsors. PR pros need to adopt Nike’s thinking by making sure to fully understand what their market is and who the audience they are trying to reach are. Make sure to focus on your target audience/demographic and not every person in the general market. Ensuring you really have a grasp on who you are talking or selling to, like Nike does with basketball fans will really help you hone your message, yielding more impact, press hits etc. Your mother wasn’t kidding when she said you can’t please everyone. A PR campaign that aims to please all parties isn’t often as effective as a well-targeted one.
Meanwhile, Cleveland fans cannot help feeling that he strung them and the Cleveland Cavaliers along, which resulted in many other players losing interest in the team and either turning down contract offers to join the team, or current roster players departing for other teams. With LeBron gone, the Cavaliers were the Cavaliers of times before LeBron was drafted straight out of high school. Fans also have an argument that the Miami Heat wasn’t really his team but Dwyane Wade’s since Wade had won a championship there previously and was the franchise player for the Miami Heat straight out of college. LeBron also had assistance from another all-star in Chris Bosh. Other champions like Michael Jordan, they argue, had their own team and won it all carrying their team on their shoulders. Also, if James and Wade were to remain together in pursuit of multiple championship rings, Wade will always have one more ring than LeBron, which Wade won six years ago when he was only 24. So LeBron James, in that respect, will always be playing catch-up to Wade, having finally won his first title at 27 with help.
But, as business people, can we really accuse someone of coming to the realization that he needed more weapons than the supporting cast and understudies at Cleveland to reach his full potential? Some would agree that’s smart, there’s no shame in seeking help to reach your goal.
The same goes for PR. To be successful, PR pros need to equip themselves with the right tools that will best help them reach their goals. We PR pros have many weapons at our disposal to do our jobs. It could be leveraging a media monitoring service, searching through a reporter database to build a targeted list, utilizing HARO and Profnet for media relations, building relationships with top reporters, social media, etc. And it’s not only having the tools at your disposal, it is also knowing how to use them effectively and efficiently to your best advantage. Remember that it took the Miami Heat three attempts before finally winning it all, even with those three all-star players, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Some will say LeBron won a championship ring in a half-season that started in December, rather than the fall. Full NBA seasons are much tougher; a full season brings different injuries and also more recovery time, etc. Also, wasn’t it about time LeBron won a championship anyway? Especially since he’s arguably the most gifted person, athletically, on any court he stands on. And he beat a young team with little post-season experience and no seasoned veteran leaders in the Oklahoma Thunder.
Remember: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Even with all the naysayers, LeBron kept his eyes on the acclaimed championship. It’s easier said than done but it’s crucial to keep your eye on the prize during adversity or crises in PR. After all, PR is a very public facing function and things will go wrong. After working in PR for many years now, even I accidentally sent out a release over the wire earlier than the publish date the other week. People make mistakes, software and technologies malfunction, but it is how you recover that matters. Often times after you’ve made a strong decision, there’s a negative backlash but you may need to stick to your guns and move forward, while dealing with the issues and scrutiny.
No matter how long it took, LeBron James got it done, even in the face of intense scrutiny. He’s possibly the most scrutinized NBA player of all time. Such is life for superstar athletes in this day and social media age, especially if your name is LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers and its fans can complain, but he gave them seven years of his life and professional career and took them to places they didn’t necessarily belong, namely the NBA finals. Along the way, LeBron quietly picked up 3 MVP trophies and became a more complete player.
The old saying is that everyone is the architect of their own fortune. Only LeBron himself is in control of his destiny and PR prowess. Tiger Woods did damage his reputation permanently, but LeBron James, not so much. Moving forward, LeBron James could easily become the victim of his own success as he’s now expected to win multiple championships — not just the one — as past players of his caliber have done. Once you set the bar high, and deliver, like he did with the Miami Heat, that newly attained level becomes the base for spectators and it’s time to aim even higher which can seem very daunting. So success can often bring pressure of bigger expectations. The expectation for next season will be to win again, not get the team to the post-season. But it’s a good type of pressure, having gone all the way once and knowing the path to success.
As PR pros, we are all too familiar with obstacles. Whether it is approvals, bureaucracy, clients or something else, don’t allow anything to kill your momentum. No matter what’s in your way, like LeBron and Nike, just do it, get it done. And don’t think it goes unnoticed; silent warriors are the best employees and people do take note. Like LeBron’s 3 MVP titles he won while trying and failing time and time again to win an NBA championship, you also may learn and pick up a few accolades along the way, even if you fail the first few tries. Even when it seems like you are stuck in a rut, PR pros should always strive to get the most out of each situation that’s presented to them.
As LeBron said in a post-win interview, his main motivation came from the fact that he said to himself that he was no longer willing to walk off the court, having lost again in the NBA Finals and having had to remove his jersey again as he did in previous finals losses. This was his year and he reached out and grabbed it.
I think the real question PR pros should be asking is, how can LeBron James use PR to improve his standings next year?
LeBron James and the Miami Heat finally winning it all is a prime example of not giving up when you fall. Even though people are there to laugh, rather than give you a hand so you can get back on your feet again. Getting back up to keep persevering is what PR champions are made off. Just remember the more ideas you generate the greater the ability to think of something truly captivating, taking larger bounds in your growth. What keeps me going as a PR manager for North America is actually my British Middle School’s motto: Endeavor is all.
It’s something that LeBron James has clearly learned and that Dwight Howard will soon learn as the “Dwightmare Sweepstakes” saga unfolds during the current NBA free agency period.
Samson Adepoju is the Communications and PR Manager at MediaMind, with responsibility for MediaMind in North America. He communicates the company’s corporate and product messaging externally and serves as MediaMind’s primary contact with outside PR resources. He contributes to the Creative Zone blog (http://creativezone.mediamind.com/Blog/) and is in charge of obtaining executive speaking opportunities. Before joining MediaMind, Samson led global PR for two WPP companies, 24/7 Media and the Media Innovation Group (MIG) where he was responsible for creating and executing all external communications programs.
Published: July 2, 2012 By: